On Tuesday, December 3, 2019, U.S. federal banking regulators issued an interagency statement supporting the evaluation of alternative data when assessing consumers’ creditworthiness. Recognizing that the use of alternative data may improve the speed and accuracy of credit decisions, the agencies hope to address the difficulty facing consumers who are often unable to obtain credit from traditional credit sources. According to FinRegLab, a nonprofit research organization, an estimated 45 million to 60 million consumers lack the credit history needed to generate satisfactory credit scores. Further, millions more do not have access to affordable credit due to low scores and low incomes. The use of alternative data in the rendering of credit decisions may improve credit opportunities, as firms may choose to use these alternatives for those applicants who would otherwise be denied credit.

One such data source is a borrower’s cash flow as an alternative to the traditional credit-evaluation system. Although not an entirely novel concept, and an already well-established part of the underwriting process, some firms are now automating the use of cash flow data to determine a borrower’s ability to repay loans. These newer automation methods have been found to improve the measurement of a borrower’s income and expenses. Most importantly, the automation of a borrower’s cash flow better illustrates income patterns over time from multiple sources as opposed to evaluating a single income source; the borrower information gleaned from these alternative sources is more robust and comprehensive than the information relied upon by traditional credit-evaluation companies. As the regulators highlight in their interagency statement, “cash flow data are specific to the borrowers and generally derived from reliable sources, such as bank account records, which may help ensure the data’s accuracy.”

To the extent firms are using or contemplating using alternative data, the agencies encourage responsible use of such consumer data. As the sources of alternative data grow, both banks and non-banks will need to determine which types of alternative data might carry more risk to consumers – and do their best to minimize or justify the use of such data sources. Although cash flow data provides a relatively unbiased predictor of loan repayment ability, some lenders have garnered fair lending scrutiny for their use of certain alternative data such as borrower occupation, education and information from social media. As the agencies made clear in their statement, lenders considering the use of alternative data must take steps to ensure consumer protection risks are “understood and addressed.” Accordingly, it will remain vitally important for lenders leveraging alternative data to do so within a well-developed fair and responsible lending program that includes, among other things, periodic fair lending testing.

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